Does Storytelling Add To Mathematical Success?

Author:  Cathy Tran
Institution:  University of California Santa Barbara
Date:  August 2004

Preschoolers with strong storytelling abilities may perform better in mathematics, according to a recent study published in First Language. Daniela O’Neill, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, found that three- and four-year-olds who are better able to articulate a picture book to an experimental puppet performed better on mathematical tasks administered two years later.

Forty-one preschoolers from the Waterloo region freely narrated a book about a pet frog that caused mayhem at dinner. The chaotic incidents ranged from the frog jumping into a musician’s instrument to one poking out of a woman’s salad plate.

"This made it possible to see how well children were able to talk about the feelings or thoughts of the characters in the story and how well children were able to talk about the different actions of the various characters and switch clearly from talking about one character to another," O’Neill explains.

A child’s ability to clearly switch from one character to another, infer mental states, and capture multiple events were predictive of future mathematical ability, according to O’Neill. Mathematical ability was assessed through subtraction, addition, and shape identification problems.

In explaining these results, O’Neill predicts that these storytelling abilities involve capturing cause-and-effect and taking perspectives, which may underscore the problem-solving skills necessary for mathematics. Her findings showed that grammatical complexity and sentence length were not strong indicators of future mathematical ability.

This study suggests the benefits of storytelling may lie beyond animated voices, wide eyes, and giggles – it may have intellectual applications as well. O’Neill notes that although storytelling abilities have no direct conclusive effect on improved mathematical skills, her findings fit into a bigger picture wherein strong language skills are essential and children with stronger language skills seem to fare better in school.

"It is also a nice finding, I think, because storytelling is something every parent can easily do and foster with their children, without the need to buy any fancy toys or materials," says O'Neill.

In future studies, O’Neill plans to assess how different types of narrative abilities predict achievement in specific components of mathematics.